BONN, Germany — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Germany on Wednesday on his maiden overseas trip as the top diplomat in an administration whose foreign policy overtures are mostly being conducted from the White House.
Tillerson’s participation at a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of 20 major world economies is in some aspects his introductory foray into the world of diplomacy and its practitioners. As chief executive of ExxonMobil, Tillerson negotiated oil deals around the world, but he had never dipped into foreign policy before becoming secretary of state two weeks ago.
He will be in “listening mode” during multilateral meetings on the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, said a senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under protocol for briefing reporters on the trip.
And it will be Tillerson’s first face-to-face meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at a time when relations between Washington and Moscow are fraught with tension, uncertainty and scandal. Russia plays a key role in the Syrian war, it is suspected of trying to meddle in the U.S. presidential election, and there is concern over its recent deployment of a cruise missile in violation of a key arms-control treaty.
President Trump has said he wants to get along better with Russia, but the White House says Trump expects Moscow to “return” Crimea to Ukraine after annexing it in 2014. Lavrov’s spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said Wednesday that Moscow will not even discuss the subject.
Questions about possible ties between the Trump administration and the Kremlin rose anew this week when Michael Flynn resigned as national security adviser after it emerged that he had discussed U.S. sanctions against Moscow with Russia’s ambassador before Trump’s inauguration.
But lifting sanctions imposed over Ukraine and Crimea is apparently off the table for the time being. The State Department official said Tillerson will raise with Lavrov overlapping interests such as fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, but will insist that Russia stop supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine and live up to other commitments it made in the Minsk agreements.
“The president himself has said that it’s too early to talk about lifting sanctions,” the official said when asked whether Tillerson would signal a softer approach to Russia on Ukraine.
Amid concerns among European allies over how rigorously the Trump administration will uphold traditional U.S. commitments, Tillerson also will meet separately with the foreign ministers of Italy and Britain, as well as those of Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Britain has its own concerns with Russia. Prime Minister Theresa May has warned the White House to “beware” of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the Kremlin has accused Britain of trying to poison relations between Moscow and Washington.
The tensions bubbling below the surface at the G-20 meeting come at a time when the State Department is still laboring to assert its traditional place as the chief voice for U.S. foreign policy.
But the State Department has been largely silent, in part because it is still trying to fill staff positions and replace many senior political appointees who resigned as is typical when a new administration takes office. After two weeks on the job, Tillerson still lacks a deputy. His personal choice for the No. 2 spot, Elliott Abrams, was rejected by the White House, apparently because Abrams criticized Trump during the presidential campaign.
Tillerson left Washington for Germany on the day Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the White House. The State Department was represented at the meeting by Tom Shannon, the acting deputy, who served in the Obama administration.
In a sign of the unsettled nature of life at Foggy Bottom, Tillerson is being accompanied on the trip by several senior State Department officials who have the word “acting” as part their job titles, including five acting assistant secretaries and an acting spokesman.
The State Department still has not resumed its daily news briefing, an institution for decades and a vital way for the U.S. government to explain foreign policy to Americans and the rest of the world.
And State often has not weighed in with its version of conversations Tillerson has had with foreign counterparts, even when those counterparts have gone on to speak publicly about the substance of their talks, leaving a one-sided narrative with no American counterweight.
It is not clear whether Tillerson, who has not spoken publicly since a speech to employees when he arrived at the State Department on Feb. 2, will make any public comments in Bonn.